Feminism from above and below

Estelle Cooch surveys the new feminist movements. This article first appeared in the Spring 2015 Issue of rs21 magazine.


2014 was a year of watersheds and contradictions. The global movement against rape and sexual violence seemed to gain its first major victories. In the UK a series of celebrity abusers faced prison and the horrific stories of those they had abused (women and men) made headline news.

Meanwhile in the US the protests against woeful university responses to sexual assault broke out of the sphere of student politics and sparked a global conversation about “lad culture” and victim-blaming. In the media, a plethora of celebrities “came out” as feminists. In an iconic performance Beyonce, who as a black woman in America would have been ineligible to vote only fifty years ago, performed to 10.1 million viewers in front of neon lights spelling out “Feminist” at the MTV video music awards. Despite the contradictions, for the first time in a long time, misogyny seemed to be on the backfoot.

For those on the left these are confusing times. The anti-capitalist movement after Seattle in 1999 fed into the resurgence of all kinds of autonomist and feminist ideas – similar in some ways to those of the 1970s, but reformulated and addressing contemporary issues.

A central tenet of many of these ideas was to recognise neoliberalism as a new and distinct phase in capitalism that required a new and distinct response. Initially there seemed to be a backlash against so-called “Leninist” ways of organising (although the meaningfulness of this term has since been much debated).

During this period nascent feminist groups were set up largely without any intervention by socialists or revolutionaries. Furthermore, it was feminists like Nancy Fraser, Hester Eisenstein and Ariel Levy who, through their analyses of contemporary sexism, began to identify features of neoliberalism that the left had underestimated or neglected entirely.

By 2005, with the publication of Ariel Levy’s seminal book Female Chauvinist Pigs, many feminists had started to identify a growing rift within the movement. A type of neoliberal feminism seemed to be developing that took traditional feminist ideas – empowerment and choice – and repackaged them to suit the needs of the market. The process of doing so rendered these ideas virtually meaningless. The branding of the 2001 war against Afghanistan as “feminist” and the subsequent use of “women’s rights” to justify attacks on Muslim women’s choice to wear the veil was a key turning point in this.

But it wasn’t only those at the top who provoked a debate about the aims of feminism today. In 2011 the Slutwalk protests that spread around the globe were criticised by many feminists as embracing the very ideas that feminism was meant to reject. As Harsha Walia wrote “the term [slut] disproportionately impacts women of color and poor women to reinforce their status as inherently dirty and second-class.” Prominent anti-porn campaigner Gail Dines agreed: “While the organisers of the SlutWalk might think that proudly calling themselves “sluts” is a way to empower women, they are in fact making life harder for girls who are trying to navigate their way through the tricky terrain of adolescence.”

The global feminist movement has since flourished in unusual ways, but one increasingly unifying feature appears to be a sense of solidarity with other anti-systemic struggles. The coalescence of feminist and anti-austerity groups around the E15 mothers campaign in the UK or the prominence of queer feminists in the anti-racist protests in Ferguson are but two examples of this.

This cross-fertilisation of struggles makes the current feminist movement fertile ground for revolutionary ideas about transforming the world, despite the recent failure of the left to always articulate a principled anti-sexist stance. It was a desire to understand contemporary feminism as it really was, rather than how it is portrayed, that led me to conduct my own research.

The survey I undertook in October 2014 set out to achieve two things: the primary aim was to identify the ideas that were influencing the so-called “new feminism”. The second aim was to ask to what extent the new movement had been influenced by the ideas of neoliberalism or, rather as I suspected, was it increasingly reacting against them?

I sent the survey to university feminist societies and local groups over two weeks in October 2014 with the aim of getting 100 responses. What happened next I could never have anticipated. Within one hour of the survey being online, 70 people had completed it and by the end of week one (when I was forced to close the survey early) 1500 respondents had replied, making it one of the biggest ever surveys of the feminist movement. As I sifted through the answers I was blown away by the stories of frontline actions and anecdotes of the desperate situations that had transformed people into fighters for women’s liberation. The research remains a modest contribution, but I believe it contains some useful insights into the positive state of the movement today.

A neoliberal turn?

To say that the ruling class use feminist rhetoric to justify aspects of neoliberalism is no longer controversial. What remains more controversial is the extent that second wave feminism laid the groundwork for this co-option. Is it the case, as Nancy Fraser argues, that neoliberal ideas sneaked forwards like a Trojan horse within the second wave feminist movement itself?  Although I think Fraser overstates the case for this, quite substantially at times, her dual definition of feminism can be useful for understanding how it is used by the ruling class today.

Fraser identifies the first meaning of “feminism” as the more traditional one – a social movement that struggles for social and economic equality for women. Although we can argue about the extent to which first and second wave feminism achieved this, or even consciously aimed to do so, it is fair to suggest that this is the more commonly accepted definition of feminism.

The second definition that Fraser proposes is one whereby “feminism” has become an “empty signifier”, an almost meaningless phrase, akin to perhaps “democracy”. She argues that the use of “feminism” to justify recent wars and increased exploitation means the term has been completely re-defined. She writes “as the discourse becomes independent of the movement the latter is increasingly confronted with a strange shadowy version of itself, an uncanny double that it can neither simply embrace now wholly disavow.”

As part of conducting the survey I joined 24 different university feminist Facebook groups and met with a number of organisers. The regularity with which discussions cropped up about whether Sheryl Sandberg or Beyonce could be feminists surprised me. These “Davos feminists” as some have called them were certainly not welcomed with open arms. Fraser’s “uncanny doubles” were far more likely to be disavowed than embraced.

Before considering the state and trajectory of the movement today, two brief points. The first is that the survey I conducted over the course of a fortnight was heavily indebted to the work of Catherine Redfern and Kristen Aune, current editors of the F Word Blog and authors of the book Reclaiming the F Word. Redfern and Aune conducted the biggest survey of the UK feminist movement in 2009 and without their survey making any comparisons or analyses of how the movement has developed would be mere speculation.

The second point is to say that I make no claims that this survey is as valid or ethically sound as the research that Redfern and Aune conducted with considerably more time, money and knowledge at their disposal. That said, as many of the results mirror their findings I hope that the insights here reflect some important changes in the movement since 2009.

Who are the “new feminists”?

Natasha Walters first brought the term “new feminism” into popular use in her book of the same name, in 1998. At the time, Walters was extremely optimistic about the prospect for women’s liberation as the 21st century approached. The rise of raunch culture that intensified with the new millennium shocked her and left her troubled.

In the years that followed, the movement was to be much disoriented. The wars against Afghanistan and Iraq led to vicious arguments within the feminist movement about imperialism and racism. These arguments helped to solidify the claims ruling class women had on feminism as many activists struggled to defend the rights of Muslim women in the face of rising Islamophobia.

A key turning point came with the launch of the Miss University of London pageant in 2006. The pageant became a flashpoint for feminist groups being radicalised at the onset of the economic crisis and faced direct action in 2008 and 2009, eventually being scrapped in 2010. Several respondents in the 2014 survey remembered intense debates in their feminist groups at the time between an older layer of activists interested in “more postmodern ideas and cultural critique” and newer activists who “just wanted to get stuck in”.

These protests came at a crucial political juncture. This was the post-Iraq, pre-austerity world. The women (and men) involved grew up under New Labour and the type of state-sponsored feminism that saw “Blair’s babes” hailed as the representation that would address inequality between the sexes. Many of the “new feminists” came from old Labour families disillusioned with Blairism. This is reflected in Redfern and Aune’s 2009 survey which saw 28.7% of respondents (363 out of 1265) name socialist as one of the types of feminism they identified with most.

Five years on the global situation had changed dramatically. In British universities there had been major clashes around the increase in tuition fees and it was four years into a viciously pro-austerity Tory government. Support for the main three parties remains at a historic low with one poll suggesting if an election was called tomorrow the Greens would become the second most popular party for 18-24 year olds.[1]

This is reflected in the 2014 survey by a number of shifts. The number of feminists identifying with “socialist” increased to 33.1% (394 out of 1190). Similarly, those identifying with Marxist (for which there is no recorded data from 2009) stood at 13.8% and revolutionary garnered 12%, up from 9% in 2009.

There were also a number of interesting trends when it came to the types of feminist identification that respondents were moving away from. “Radical” decreased from 19.8% in 2009 to 18.5 percent and those identifying with separatist feminism continued to be negligible (1.8 down to 1.2% in 2014) implying “radical” feminism no longer has implicit within it the kind of separatism it was associated with in the 1980s. Interestingly those identifying with liberal feminism had also decreased from 23.4% to 21.8%

Although all of these results could be within the margins of error they do tally with certain trends in feminist debate in the past few years.

The decrease in those willing to define themselves as “radical” feminist is most likely due to a revival in debates over transgenderism, particularly in the vocal resurgence of TERFs – “trans-exclusionary radical feminists” who do not believe that trans women should be allowed in cis women only spaces. This has led to the cancelling of a number of radical feminist conferences – most controversially RadFem at Conway Hall in 2012.

The revival of TERFs has reinforced and bolstered the rapidly growing trans-rights movement. In the same year as the cancelled conference trans women were finally allowed to join the traditionally cis women only Reclaim the Night march, largely as a result of pressure by NUS women’s campaign.  In 2013 the Guardian ran a feature on trans rights as “the next big political movement” and one recent Time cover featured the actress Laverne Cox with the headline “The Transgender Tipping Point”.  Referrals for trans patients under the age of 18 has increased five-fold in the past four years and the suicide note left by teenager Leelah Allcorn became another watershed in highlighting trans issues. [2] The so-called “TERF-wars” have highlighted at least one obvious generational divide in the movement, as all the women who expressed trans-exclusionary views in the 2014 survey I conducted were in the age 40 or over category.

Nevertheless it seems odd that there would be a decrease in both radical and liberal feminism – particularly in the era of what one respondent referred to as “bootylicious feminism which is powerpoint-yielding and prada-wearing”.

One reason for this in the UK is the increasing desire by Tory politicians to define themselves as feminist. This has forced many activists to question if feminism can really mean anything if Theresa May and Louise Mensch can so easily brandish the label. There has been a conscious effort within the Tory party, particularly after their third election defeat in 2005, to “feminise” as part of Cameron’s “compassionate conservatism”, aiming to attract voters who supported New Labour in 1997. In an extensive survey of grassroots Tory attitudes towards women it was found that there has been a general increase in support for “liberal feminist” positions within the Tory party, in almost all areas apart from abortion, where Tory women remained more conservative than men. [3]

What concerns the new feminists?

If it is true that many of the new feminists identify with socialist or Marxist ways of looking at the world, what issues do they deem most important? Studying this question was difficult as in both the 2009 survey and in my 2014 one it required analysis of free-text answers and the categorisation of (at times) lengthy responses. I tried to stay faithful to the useful categories Redfern and Aune proposed so as to enable some comparison. Respondents were asked to name the “three feminist issues that were most important” to them. Many of the same topics emerged – intersectionality, transphobia and lad culture were all issues that increased in “importance” between 2009 and 2014.

One issue, however, stood out above all others – the issue of rape. In 2009 20.6% of respondents said rape and sexual abuse concerned them. By 2014 this had risen to a staggering 64.6%. This was the biggest change of all questions and reflects the colossal rise of a global movement against rape in the past few years.

After a Toronto cop suggested in 2011 that “women should avoid dressing like sluts” to avoid rape, the SlutWalk protests became a real turning point. Since then, the appalling rape at Steubenville high school, the Isla Vista massacre, and the visual campaign of Emma Sulkowicz to have her rapist expelled from Columbia University, have boosted the US movement and fed into anger everywhere.

The campaigns against rape have taken on a characteristic similar to many struggles in the neoliberal age – namely that their symbolism gives them an importance out of proportion to the numbers involved. In the age of social media any image of sexual harassment can be online within seconds – think of the “blue bra girl” in Egypt – instantly sparking protests half way around the globe.

The movement has also been bolstered by the undermining of neoliberalism more generally – not least because rape goes to the very contradiction of what capitalism tells us about our bodies. On the one hand our bodies are the one thing we truly own and we are told it is our choices in life that make us more than anything else. On the other hand if someone commits a rape, therefore denying a person this choice and violating their body, the victim is told by the system that it is, ultimately still, their fault.

Feminism from above and from below

This article has aimed to lay out some very broad trends in the UK feminist movement regarding the politics they identify with and the issues they feel are important. It has also aimed to chart a recent trajectory that shows the movement intimately connected to other social movements. The “new feminists” are often also the new Palestine activists, the new anti-cuts activists and in Scotland the activists for radical independence.

What became obvious through the survey is the development of a vicious form of, to adapt Hal Draper’s phrase, “feminism from above”. That’s not to say it’s a feminism that enacts positive state reforms, however. This is a feminism that in the UK says that to support welfare cuts is to truly empower women with personal responsibility.  It’s a feminism that doesn’t want to put women back in the home (as they’re now a crucial part of a low-paid part-time workforce) but it does want to make them feel guilty for not being there. There are many features of this type of feminism, but three of the most important are as follows.

It locates the root of inequality in the choices women make and to a lesser extent societies ideas that they internalise. Sheryl Sandberg’s notorious urge that women “lean-in” to their careers is one example of this, but consider this recent campaign from Nike: “A girl living in poverty is already an entrepreneur in training. To simply survive, she has already learned to be resourceful. A negotiator. A networker…”[4] This dovetails with the growing idea women should use their “erotic capital” to gain a foothold in business, neatly providing huge profits for the “self-improvement industry”. Individualising responsibility in this way also lets state-sponsored equality legislation off the hook.

Another current feature of “feminism from above” is its desire to co-opt many of the struggles around rape and sexual violence. The launch of the “End Sexual Violence in Conflict” summit in 2014 with no sense of irony by those attending (many of whom had launched the conflicts discussed!) was astounding. Even Eve Ensler, who launched One Billion Rising urges women to rise above sexual violence “through dance”, serving to separate such violence off from the structures that lead to it.

A final feature of current neoliberal feminism is its absolute requirement to avoid any sense of historical or social context. The fact that the economic crisis has led to mass unemployment for women across Europe (30.8% in Greece) has to be ignored for neoliberal feminism to serve its purpose. Demands for equal pay in the boardroom are acceptable, but when it comes to black or Latino cleaners, the neoliberal feminists have to “save costs”.

The new feminist groups have emerged in stark contrast to this. Most of the groups were desperately keen to be inclusive and cited an “intersectional” approach as their way of doing this. When asked what they thought the biggest problem with the feminist movement was, 12.3% said they thought it was too divided and accusatory. 9.2% said it was not inclusive enough and the same percentage said it was too blaming of men. A significant number (6.7%) also said Islamophobia was a big problem, despite the fact that very few respondents actually displayed any Islamophobic views. Reflective of this nervousness is the fact that when results were filtered, more women believed men could be feminists than male respondents, who were more likely to define themselves as “allies”.

Another feature of “feminism from below” is its involvement in other social movements. Nancy Fraser criticises the second wave for not defending welfare, in favour of women going into work, converging with neoliberal critiques of the “nanny state”. This accusation cannot be levelled at the new groups who have been an active part of the movement against austerity.  In fact 8.6% of respondents in 2014 thought the biggest problem with the feminist movement today was that it did not criticise capitalism enough and 12.8% said capitalism caused sexism.

One final observation on the new groups that is perhaps more controversial. It became obvious through analysis of the survey and through following the debates of a range of university groups that there remains a gap between more seasoned feminist activists who have the “lingo” to engage with quite advanced debates, and newer activists who have been radicalised by raunch culture and the growing sexism around them. To take just one example when it comes to debates on Facebook: on the groups of two Russell Group feminist societies there have been lengthy posts about intersectionality 46 and 130 times in the past two years. On the groups of two non-Russell Group feminist societies (of a similar size and online activity rate) there had been six and 17 posts. There are many reasons for this disparity and just because the word “intersectional” wasn’t used didn’t mean that activists were not discussing other oppressions, but the difference in language use is certainly something to note. For any anti-sexist movement to successfully integrate new activists, both groups must be able to learn from each other and be relevant to the struggles they are involved in.

We live in a world defined by both a sexual and economic paradox – sex is everywhere, yet people feel more anxious about their sexuality than ever before. We know the current economic system does not work, and yet we struggle to articulate alternatives.

And yet, one message emerged from the survey loud and clear: because these two paradoxes are so intimately linked, they have to be fought together. In short, genuine liberation will not be won in the boardroom, but rather on the barricades.


[1] https://yougov.co.uk/news/2015/01/13/greens-tied-conservatives-among-young-people/

[2] http://www.advocate.com/politics/transgender/2015/02/11/british-clinic-young-trans-patients-have-increased-five-fold-four-ye

[3] Paul Webb nd Sarah Childs, Gender Politics and Conservatism.

[4] I matter and so does she, Ofra Koffman and Rosalind Gill


  1. It is astounding to me that an article that describes trends in feminism and feminist movements makes no mention at all of changes (or not) in thinking about one of the most essential features of sexist oppression – unpaid work / social reproduction. Any discussion purporting a feminist economic analysis must begin there. Where is this analysis? Is that a failure of the author? of the survey instrument? or (most disturbingly) of the movements described?

  2. From my reading of a quite extensive body of feminist work in the Economic and Political Weekly (Mumbai) many
    feminists from Asia and Africa are engaged by the fact that most of the kind of debate you mention doesn’t take note of anything outside Europe and North America. In India for instance, no feminist activist denies that caste is absolutely central to women’s oppression, which is relevant to what happens in the UK.


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